The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to the Valley of the Sun this weekend for the second time in a little more than a year, to race at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR). Recall that last year’s race was run in the first weekend in April, Due to the Final Four in Phoenix, IndyCar officials wisely decided to juggle the schedule this year and move the Phoenix race to the end of the month – so here we are.
Heading into Phoenix last year, there was a great deal of hand-wringing among the Honda teams. They had not fared too well at St. Petersburg a couple of weeks earlier, and things did not look promising for Phoenix. To put it nicely, the race at Phoenix last year was a disaster for Honda. They place two cars in the Top-Ten, those being the fifth place car of Graham Rahal and the tenth place car of Ryan Hunter-Reay. After Chevy had cars in eleventh and twelfth, the remainder of the running cars on the track were all Hondas.
To be fair, it wasn’t as bad as it looked on paper. Hunter-Reay was spectacular on restarts and was running seventh as he pitted under the green flag only to be caught under the yellow. After he made up a lot of the ground he had lost, it happened again – twice, in the same night. Alexander Rossi also performed well in his first-ever oval before having to pit while the pits were closed and then suffering a tire puncture late in the race.
Still, if you’re a Honda team you wanted a better showing than that.
This year, things are looking better for Honda. Without saying they dominated the first two races, Honda certainly seemed to have an advantage. Last weekend at Barber, both manufacturers had something to boast about. Team Penske dominated the entire weekend and won the race and had two drivers on the podium with their Chevy engines. But the other two Chevy teams had dismal results for the weekend. While Honda did not win the race at Barber, they had the second-place car with Scott Dixon and were very competitive from top-to-bottom.
How much of this improvement this year translates to the short oval at Phoenix? Truthfully, I have no idea. It’s quite obvious that Honda has stepped up their game on street courses, but I don’t know if they have improved enough over their dismal showing a year ago to win at Phoenix.
One thing I do know – it has been a lot more interesting watching the manufacturer’s battle as one struggles for any slight supremacy they can get, instead of witnessing the beat-downs that Honda suffered on a near-weekly basis for the past two seasons.
Last year’s race was not the most scintillating, but it wasn’t near as bad as some claimed afterwards. I was a little disappointed in the crowd last year and will be very interested to see if it looks any better this year.
If I’m not mistaken, this was originally scheduled to be a one-day event; with practice and qualifying early in the day, and the race that night. Somewhere along the way that was changed, although I’m not sure exactly when that happened or why.
Regardless, the new schedule will feature a two-hour practice today (Friday) starting at 4:00 pm local time (7:00 EDT), with qualifying at 8:00 pm local time (11:00 EDT). Both practice and qualifying will be streamed live on IndyCar.com. If you don’t want to stay up that late on the east coast, they will show the taped qualifying show on Saturday just prior to the race; which starts at 9:30 pm EDT with the pre-race show beginning at 9:00 pm EDT, all on NBCSN.
Ed Carpenter Racing welcomes JR Hildebrand back to the No.21, after missing Barber with a broken hand. Ed Carpenter himself returns to the cockpit since Phoenix is obviously an oval. Spencer Pigot will be on-hand in case Hildebrand cannot go, but all signs point to Hildebrand in the car this weekend.
There are a few things I’m going to be watching carefully this weekend. Will the Dale Coyne Racing resurgence continue now that the series is on an oval? Sébastien Bourdais has earned a bad rap that he can’t race on an oval. Granted, oval racing is not his forte, but I can remember seeing Bourdais dominate a Champ car race at Milwaukee back in his four-year championship run. I think some people are guilty of shortchanging his oval skills.
I also intend to pay close attention to Alexander Rossi. He has improved tremendously since his first-ever oval at Phoenix last year. With a year of ovals under his belt, I want to see what he does this year with a lot more confidence.
The performance of Chip Ganassi Racing is another point of interest for me. Last year Dixon won in a Chevy and his Ganassi teammate Tony Kanaan came in fourth. Sandwiched in between them were two Penske cars of Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. Dixon’s win at Phoenix last year was the only Ganassi win for the season until Dixon won at Watkins Glen in September. Two wins among four drivers for the entire season was very un-Ganassi-like. As someone pointed out here the other day, it’s interesting that Ganassi seems to already have a better handle on the Honda engine and aero kit after three races than Andretti Autosport does after doing all of the development work for Honda a few years ago.
I’m also curious to see if Penske and Chevrolet continue the momentum that they both gained at Barber last weekend. Perhaps there is just something about Phoenix that is better suited to the Chevy engine and aero kit; or maybe Honda has made enough gains in the offseason that they can take the fight to Chevy, no matter the venue.
And what about Ed Carpenter Racing? Spencer Pigot was having a good race at Barber before spinning out. Ed Carpenter will be in that same car this weekend. He and Hildebrand were both in the Top-Three at the Test in the West in the pre-season at the same track they’ll be racing on Saturday night.
For me, there are so many interesting storylines in play – they could have a single-line parade tomorrow night and I’d be happy just seeing how different things played out. I’m kidding, of course. I do hope there is a little more action than last year’s race at PIR. They have allowed a little more freedom with downforce over last year, so that should make things interesting.
I suppose it’s time to make my pick and potentially ruin someone’s weekend by picking them. Last week, I said my heart says Newgarden and my head said Dixon. I went with my head and the reverse happened. Newgarden won and Dixon came in second. This week I think the unexpected may happen again like it did in the first two races. My heart says Graham Rahal, but my head says Alexander Rossi. This week, I’m going with my heart and say that Graham Rahal will win tomorrow night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. Chances are, I’ve now jinxed Rahal’s race Saturday night. We’ll see.